Cover Feature

Frances Katzen: From Prima Ballerina to New York City’s Top Power Broker

Frances Katzen (Photo by Melanie Greene)

Spanning New York City to Miami and the Kennedy Center, her 21-year career as a professional ballerina took a final bow to major injury, leading Frances Katzen to turn her innate creativity, instincts and pure grit into a real estate career — ultimately propelling herself to the upper echelon of New York City real estate. 

“I had no comfortable landing, no clear next steps. I was terrified,” Katzen said. “Fear creates an uncomfortable mindset because there’s no time to deliberate. Despite my uncertainty, I knew I had a passion for architecture and enjoyed working with people, and I was determined to move forward and try something new.” 

Today, Katzen leads The Katzen Team at Douglas Elliman, ranked No. 5 nationwide and recognized across the industry for getting even the most complicated deals done. With well over $3 billion in total sales volume, Katzen has consistently landed on Douglas Elliman’s prestigious Top 10 list for highest grossing production in both sales volume and total transactions for the past decade. 

The powerhouse didn’t always prowl the concrete jungle. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, her business acumen developed while growing up in Sydney, Australia, where the family moved when she was five years old because of the oppressive apartheid regime in her hometown. 

“My father contemplated moving to Europe or America but landed on Australia because the country was seeking skilled physicians of his caliber at the time and it had a backdrop of nature similar to Cape Town,” Katzen recalled. “We embarked on a new journey there, and he started his practice all over, eventually establishing himself as a highly regarded physician. There’s something to be said about growing up and watching your parent really work to further their career.” 

During her formative years, a ballet interest developed via the Royal Academy of Dance Syllabus, but before starting that program, Katzen was placed in a modern dance class, where a terrible teacher drove her to go forward with a ballet class instead. The mandatory exams consisted of a series of exercises paired with a creative dance — both of which she thought she failed miserably. 

“At my exams, I couldn’t remember the dance, and I will never forget that my examiner, Mrs. Turnbull, gave me honors. I left the exam a crying mess, expecting the worst, but I actually received the highest award, which is when I realized I had the potential to be good,” she recalled.

She joined the McDonald College School, which was a theatre school into the Australian Ballet, at age 14 and just one year later left home for New York City to join the School of American Ballet. She maintained her high school education concurrent with her work and was self-supporting, finding a roommate through an agency and sharing an apartment on the Upper West Side. 

Katzen’s determination pushed her to join the American Ballet Theatre when she was 21, becoming a soloist, before moving on to the Hartford Ballet, Suzanne Farrell’s company at the Kennedy Center and Edward Villella’s Miami City Ballet. Retirement came early in 2005, when a severe foot injury forced Katzen away from her profession of 21 years. 

“I had quite an unconventional career, but it was very fulfilling,” Katzen said. “The injury steered my life down a completely different path.” 

Armed with a real estate license she earned from New York University while she was still working, Katzen set out for an assistant job, calling every brokerage in the city. She landed at Corcoran in 2006 and was quickly dubbed “the worst assistant ever,” though was told she would make a great broker. 

“I had my license for a bit at that time and thought, ‘It is now or never.’ I also knew I wanted to move on from dance and do something I was in control of — running and creating something meaningful — and not acquiescing to the opinion of others,” Katzen said. 

Facing her new career with what she calls a “dancer mentality” of diligence, drive and endless thirst to do better, Katzen started navigating the world of real estate. 

“Within the first six months of starting, I hit $30,000 in debt and was beginning to doubt whether I could make real estate work,” Katzen said. “I tried to picture a new life in Australia where I would have a bakery or teach ballet. It was a tense time.” 

A listing came along that changed everything. Another broker was struggling to sell a three-bedroom, and Katzen pleaded for a chance at the property — and went on to sell it in six weeks at the full price of $2 million. The commission was double her income as a dancer and allowed her to pay off all the debt. 

“That was the catalyst,” Katzen said. “It was game on after that deal.” 

After 17 years, she is unrelenting, registering $340 million in total sales volume during the turbulent 2022 market while gracefully leading her eponymous team. Katzen’s decades of market knowledge, from her days as a ballerina living in the Upper West Side to currently residing with her two children on Central Park West, has proven a boon to her success, among other honed skills and discipline. 

“From the start of my career to where I am now, I’ve weathered a landscape of tough markets, which has really solidified the expertise I offer clients and what I pass down to my team,” Katzen said. “Leading a team, and a growing one at that, requires a lot of business acumen. You must have systems in place to ensure cohesive growth among the team, and that everything runs efficiently and effectively.” 

Katzen’s years of success have launched her to the top of the industry and made her a go-to expert, with features in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, New York Observer and The Real Deal, and broadcast interviews on NBC’s Today Show, Bloomberg and Yahoo! Finance. 

Over the past several years, the market has experienced unprecedented shifts, making expert brokers like Katzen even more in demand, as buyers and sellers alike look for accurate guidance on everything from pricing and negotiating to current market conditions. 

With all data pointing to a retreat from the “sugar highs” as Katzen calls them, the current low inventory and pricing standoff is validating her viewpoint from the beginning of the year — negotiability is in the air. 

“People will always want a stake in the New York City real estate market. It’s not just a domestic hub; it’s an international one and is designed to make assets perform,” Katzen said. “There is always opportunity.” 

And with those opportunities, Katzen has been creatively advising clients on how best to accomplish their goals, be it staying within a budget, making one work or selling for a target price or better. The powerhouse handles many aspects of her business, though knows how to stay on a personal level with clients while handling a high volume. 

“Maintaining relationships is one of the most important aspects of real estate, and I’ve organized the team in a way where the business operations can run autonomously,” Katzen said. “Serving more clients is only possible when your structure can ensure everyone receives the same white-glove service.” 

Her established group, The Katzen Team, consists of a chief of operations, agents and a marketing team, working in step to manage everything from rentals and residential listings to new development projects and relocation assistance. 

“One of the things that differentiates our team is that no matter how big we get, we keep it real, meaning in our own communication and with our clients,” Katzen said. “We believe in helping clients at every price point and that requires market knowledge, accuracy and keeping expectations in check with our understanding of the first two. You have to take your ego out of the equation.” 

Katzen has remained humble, graciously commanding projects including the Jean Nouvel-designed 53 West 53 above the MoMA and Isay Weinfeld’s first residential project in the city, Jardim in West Chelsea, among her other star-studded deals. She’s earned the loyalties of financiers, celebrities, real estate investors, developers and the art culture of New York City over the years. 

Her sophisticated Rolodex spans the States, Europe, the Middle East and her beloved Australia, with all clients appreciating her understanding of premium service with discretion and efficiency. This efficiency is fueled by an honest, straightforward approach to real estate, investment analysis and creative financial consultation, where Katzen’s “dancer mentality” shines through. 

“I am highly motivated, but my drive doesn’t stem from arrogance — it comes from a desire to take care of those who have given me a chance. When I started out, I had no connections and had to build my career from scratch by relying on hard work and delivering on promises,” Katzen said. “It’s about doing more than what is expected of you. I find this approach to be most effective in building trust and long-term relationships.” 

Her grounded, genuine approach is paired with research and metrics-driven deliveries for clients, like her monthly newsletter, “The Katzen Report.” She even finds time to host a highly regarded industry podcast, “The World of Real Estate with Frances Katzen,” where she lifts the veil on the industry for an inside, in-depth look and candid discussions with some of the most affluent and respected leaders across the real estate world. 

Katzen keeps up with the fast pace of New York City and its endless energy, enjoying its constantly changing scene, evolving real estate and effervescent populace — she can interact with clients ranging from entertainment and fashion to sports and business tycoons. 

“Being in real estate isn’t rare. I gritted my teeth, did the work, and gradually grew my career to where I’m running a team today,” she said. “Looking back at all the experiences and interactions, it’s very humbling and a reminder that there is always more to come.”